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Monday, 23 September 2013


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That looks like the ghost of Mark Twain.

Mussolini banned all photographs of himself smiling too, he must have felt the same way.

:D @ Richard's link (glad no one was around to snap my pic)

I think it's probably a combination of the leading theories that explains it -- long exposures, not wanting to look stupid, and bad teeth. But with the emergence of fast film, Kodak marketing that sold picture taking as fun, and improved dental care in the 20th century, cheesy smiles became the norm.

What a sneaky way to (not) mention pool this morning.

Aw come on Mike, inquiring minds want to know how your pool lesson went last week. How about an "Off Topic" in the middle of the week for us.

No real mystery as to why people in old photographs did not smile.
Basically they were a miserable lot who took life way too seriously,were forever waging wars,thought corporal punishment of children was a good thing etc etc,believed in a vengeful god and had no internet or cellphones what was to smile about ?.

Photographs used to require longer exposures and holding a smile wasn't easy. That would seem to be a better origin story.

Another reason people didn't smile in early photographs is that exposures were much longer than they are today, and people simply couldn't hold a smile for a minute or more without it looking like a grimace.

Great choice of images, Mike. That photo of Mark Twain was taken at the Cosmos Club here in Washington, DC, and a copy of it hangs in the pool room today, just a few feet from where he stood for the portrait.

I had a the good fortune of doing a shoot in that same room a few months back and the place has changed little since the photo was taken.

Einstein has a happy smile in the 1933 photo of him riding a bicycle at California Institute of Technology. I have that poster hanging in my office to remind me to take a break and go ride my bike...

Of course, that's not a portrait but a snapshot. It is, however a photograph...

I still remember being told as a child that the reason nobody smiled in old photos was that they had nothing to smile about back then.

In this case, Twain isn't smiling because he's stuck on a pocket billiards table when he really wanted to play 3-cushion billiards!

I would think that people chose both their dress and expression as a reflection of what others before them had done. Plus, how they wanted to present themselves, probably in the best way possible. I don't imagine cosmetic dentistry was very advanced so they may not have wanted to show their teeth off anyway...

[Actually, they probably had far better teeth than we do. We have better dental science, but we also eat huge amounts of sugar. Tooth decay is essentially a modern disease like obesity and heart disease. --Mike]

When that photo of Twain was taken, probably in the early 1900s, there was no problem with shutter speeds being fast enough to catch a smile, even on Brownie cameras. I think Twain was right -- people wanted to look dignified, or formidable, not funny.

I think it's no coincidence that the phrase "say cheese" came about. It is indeed very cheesy most of the time.

After all, the "smile" is the standard tactic of salesmen, ad-men and politicians, and to me it has a whiff (or is that a stink) of insincerity about it.

Quite apart from bad teeth, bags under the eyes and wrinkles, all of which are heavily accentuated, when people are asked to smile without genuine amusement it shows. Far from making people look "friendly and approachable" a contrived smile will make you look smug, shifty, gormless or fake.

Only a few people I know have a genuinely attractive smile in photographs.

Smiles are not a major feature of famous portrait artists that I know. It's certain not something that Jane Bown or Annie Leibovitz major on. So from the fine art point of view, I don't see that anything has changed much.

Ducreux tried to capture folk's personalities through facial expressions in paintings in the late-1700s. His self-portraits have stood the test of time and are commonly used as the basis of Internet memes. Check it out!


I've scanned some early 20th-century negatives of smiling people, and enlarging the images in Photoshop reveals that even young folks in their 20s often had rotting teeth. I think this is also why it was considered polite to cover one's mouth while laughing. Some of my grandparents had complete sets of dentures before they were 60 years old. Toothbrushing, flossing, fluoride, and modern dentistry really do make a difference.

The smile wasn't invented until 1931.

Bad teeth were common.

See also: http://petapixel.com/2012/11/04/say-prunes-not-cheese-the-history-of-smiling-in-photographs/

A smile is the common currency, the lingua franca, the universal mask expected in everyday portraiture. It presents what is most expected and demanded.

The one direction I find most useful when attempting portraiture is simply asking the subject not to smile. Often times the subject simply does not know what to do once that protective barrier is stripped away. You may not capture "a window into their soul" (what portrait ever does?), but you're bound to get something intrinsically more interesting.

IMO a honest smile is way preferable over that lifeless blank stare fashionable in fine art photography..

Here's another vote for hearing something about your second pool lesson. I'd be interested in knowing if it was as enlightening as your first one. And I still think it applys to the process of getting better at and enjoying more, our beloved photography!

In the 19th century you did not take 50 zillions of iphone snapshots but rather looked for that one picture depicting the "essence" or "synopsis" of the person as a whole. Correspondingly it is interesting to look at very long exposures of people sitting for a pinhole portrait. You dont "see" too much of a person´s traits but you "recognize" them all the more.

Another aricle is linked by The Atlantic


Twain said in a letter (mentioned in the Atlantic article) has the sitter's point of view:

"A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever."

That's the Decisive Moment captured in a nutshell.

But the other interesting viewpoint (also linked in the same article) is of the portratist who dislikes the smile because it hides the sitter's emotional state.

"A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable. Miss La Creevy’s equivocal ‘smirks’ do however make more frequent appearances: a smirk may offer artists an opportunity for ambiguity that the open smile cannot. Such a subtle and complex facial expression may convey almost anything — piqued interest, condescension, flirtation, wistfulness, boredom, discomfort, contentment, or mild embarrassment. This equivocation allows the artist to offer us a lasting emotional engagement with the image. An open smile, however, is unequivocal, a signal moment of unselfconsciousness."

So that really why we smile in snapshots? To hide our emotional state and create a more unified image of ourselves captured for eternity?

The final point

"The smile: Enabled by culture and technology, it's a little landmark, a signpost only noticed when it leads astray."

shows that our culture is strongly coupled to the technology we use. A point that photographers should recognize more than most other artists. It seems that their subjects have already adapted to the technological change that film, and now digital, snapshot technology has wrought in the past century or so.

From some of the examples in the publicdomainreview article (especially the Abe Lincoln pair of portraits) the grimace hides emotion just as much as the smile.

I rather like the "non-stern" Lincoln. I feel that much closer to him in his slightly disheveled state.

This is possibly off-topic but one of the reasons I specialise in funeral photography is because no one at funerals has a preconceived notion of how they should appear in photos.

At weddings, whenever someone spots a camera they put on their wedding face for the photo and the results are generally predictable, so much anxiety written into the face of the person posing about how they dislike their personal appearenace but at funerals no one knows how they should appear so they ignore the photographer and as a result beautiful candid portraiture is possible.

And are there smiles? Definitely during the wake. Interestingly, when I photographed an Italian funeral, I had to remove all photos of people smiling (even 9yo girls) because the family said it would have been interpreted as disrespectful by relations in Italy viewing the images.

Here's a list of some extraordinary contemporary portraitists that aren't always first on everyone's list: Robert Gumbert, Jean Francois Joly, Judith Joy Ross, Leon A. Borensztein, Wayne Lawrence, Jonathan Torgovnick, Stephen Dupont, Jim Mortram, Brenda Ann Keneally, Russell Frederick, Steven Hirsch, Dave Jordano, and Jan Banning.

It's explained by "rictus", a word I am sure that Twain used more than once, although I cannot find it in any online collection of his quotes.

I remember him as writing "a gaping rictus", which explains well enough, simply by its sound, why no one wished to be remembered for displaying it.

From Wordnik...

"A rictus of cruel malignity lit up greyly their old bony faces." -- James Joyce, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man".

A gaping grimace: "His mouth gaping in a kind of rictus of startled alarm." -- Richard Adams

Any open-mouthed expression.

"I said smile, not horrible rictus!"

It is hard to hold a smile for any length of time without it becoming strained. In this shot, the picture I took just to check the composition and lighting was the only one with an expression that didn't look false. It's the post titled Thumbs up

Perhaps because a smile, which is a form of communication, is usually transitory, it seems false in a still photograph that can be studied for some time.

My theory is that it is all about teeth quality. Americans generally have better teeth - earlier fluoridation of water supplies - and a culture of dental manipulation. Europeans do not. In my experience people with poor front teeth prefer not to smile for portraits.

That makes me curious, I have no experience in large format photography. What is a common portrait exposure time at that time? Let's say: 8x10 inch plate, well lit room, I suppose photographers had to use at least F10? What ISO capabilities had film material at the end of the 19th century had? Three seconds? Longer?

Long exposure notwithstanding, this gentleman manages what I find to be quite a sincere smile in his 1850 Daguerreotype portrait. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/232709505716532825

An explanation for the seriousness in most early photographic portraits, that I prefer, was given in a presentation by an archivist at Kodak. He speculated that, in the era before Mr. Eastman introduced mass market cameras, subjects would have been aware that the portrait would, in all likelihood, be the sole record of their likeness.

I don’t recall the archivist’s name but I do remember that he complained that decades of looking at portraits of now deceased and mostly unidentified people had become deeply disturbing to him. Perhaps he would have found the portraits less distressing if more of the subjects had looked a little happier.

Mike said...

"out of 43 portraits really only Mitt Romney is smiling, although the expressions of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and possibly the first one of Warren Buffet could be argued to constitute "smiles" as well..."

Two of whom are Politicians and the other has more to smile about than just about anyone else on Earth. I rest my case ;-)

I have scanned my catalogues of previous Taylor Wessing Photography Portrait Prize winners at the National Gallery. No smiles there either. Same for the BP Portrait Awards (paintings). Nada.

a smile ruins my image.

Mark Twain's unmentionable (very big SMILE) table looks like yours, Mike.

I'm with Bob.

I am systematically unable to produce even remotely convincing results (even by cheesy photo standards) when trying to will myself to smile. This is probably a result of a more general mild motor apraxia (this would fit with a lot of other clinical/diagnostic evidence and life experience). In any case, it makes me stand out uncomfortably in family photos. It's not that I'm physically incapable of smiling. I smile as a spontaneous emotional response like most other people do, and there are a few snapshots that provide evidence of this, but the motor planning of just making this happen because it's expected of me has, always been beyond me.

Naturally, I firmly believe that smiling in photographs is garish and undignified, and of course this is my totally rational opinion completely independent of any personal considerations. (Am I conveying the right amount of self-awareness and/or sarcasm here? It's hard to convey tone over the internet.)

Possibly related: A few months back, I found myself looking at photos of Mildred and Richard Loving (the couple from the landmark 1967 US marriage equality case Loving v. Virginia) online. I found a number of photos, and they all showed mildred smiling broadly and Richard completely blank. Of course, I don't know if Richard Loving had a condition similar to mine, or if he was just really reserved, or if he had some other reason for not smiling, or if it's all just a coincidence, but it was still striking to find someone else - a vaguely name-recognizable historical figure, no less - who managed to be 'the one who isn't smiling' in all the photos.

Maybe the Mona Lisa is having a hard time controlling herself.

Hi Mike,
I've enjoyed reading TOP for a number of years, thank you.

There's been a lot of nonsense being written about smiles and portraits these days. I haven't read the Atlantic article yet, but I just wanted to comment on this smiles business. Recently a photography enthusiast told me that in a portrait workshop he was told that it's not a portrait (or a good portrait) if the person is smiling. huh? I guess one has to first determine what is a portrait. What I see a lot of are just head shots - good for passport photos. Now a head shot can be a fine portrait, and if you can pull it off - i.e. you are Arnold Newman, Arnaud Maggs, Karsh etc. and can communicate something from a head shot. To me a successful portrait tells the viewer something about the subject - something about his/her character, it doesn't matter if they are smiling or not. Of course a portrait doesn't have to be just a head shot, see the work of HCB, and many others, but smile or no smile has nothing to do with it.

When photographing a well known writer a few years ago, I got the best snap of him after the interview, when he was relaxing, having a smoke, and we were able to joke around. The shot I got showed him almost as he would have looked as a mischievous school boy 60 years earlier, and closer to his real character. Throughout the interview, he had his glasses on, his hair combed, and looked like a banker. (not that there's anything wrong with that!).


Smiles? Ask the painter of Mona Lisa!

Did she or didn't she?

Prior to, perhaps, the 1930s, that portrait photo was expensive but far less expensive than a painting and before 1900 you only got one in your life unless you were a celebrity. Before the 1800s, any kind of image of a person for posterity indicated royalty or great wealth. Gravitas was important.


When cheese gets its picture taken, what does it say?

George Carlin

The film of Wisconsin Death Trip is also worth looking out for. It's perhaps a little overlong, but I remember coming across it by chance on TV a few years ago and being fascinated.

Funnily enough, people are now required not to smile on the ID pictures they use for French official papers, such as a driving license for example.

"What ISO capabilities had film material at the end of the 19th century had?"

IIRC, ISO was <4.

Anyone else?

And because dating dags and tintypes weren't hard enough, this guy gets into the fray with celebrity tintypes.


"My theory is that it is all about teeth quality. Americans generally have better teeth - earlier fluoridation of water supplies - and a culture of dental manipulation. Europeans do not. In my experience people with poor front teeth prefer not to smile for portraits."

Bear, I feel your views are at least half century out of date. Coming from the UK and often travelling around Europe, encountering poor or missing front teeth is a rarity. Post-war public health programmes and (in the UK) the infamous Pam Aryes poem 'Oh I wish I'd looked after my teeth' have resulted in significant improvements in dental health. I can remember in the mid-1970s a school dentist commenting to my father that improvements in children's dental health in the preceding decades would mean that dentists would soon struggle to make a living. As elsewhere in the world, dentists now tend to make their profits from sporting injuries and cosmetic procedures.

In the UK we are however suspicious of unnaturally 'perfect' teeth, the ideal is to have what appear to be naturally healthy looking teeth without appearing to have gone through an unnatural cosmetic procedure. Hence the ribbing of Hammond by his colleagues on Top Gear for his over-whitened teeth.

I suspect the reason for the differences observed is that Europeans are more likely to keep their work and private lives separate. Thus they keep a traditional pose for work related photos. It would be interesting to compare photos taken during leisure time.

The current US passport directions clearly state not to smile.

For the occasion, a german saying, translated freestyle…
When I was down and out of luck, I heard a voice saying, "smile it could be worse", so I smiled and it got worse.
And the english say the germans have no humor. Ha!

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